Space. The final frontier for a foreigner in London
`If there's a more awful experience than looking for a flat to rent, I don't want to know about it'
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 12 November 1999
"Let's not think about it," I say. "It's all over now."
"But imagine being stuck in there," he says. "Just imagine. And not being able to escape."
We're walking briskly towards the car, not looking back. "I can't," I say. "I mean, I don't want to."
"And that man." "Yes," I agree, "he was awful, but it's all right now. And you're not going to take the flat are you?" "But he was asking nearly pounds 200 a week for that, and it was..."
"I know," I say, and get out the copy of Loot, open to the flats for rent column, with half a dozen adverts ringed. "Let's press on, shall we? Where to next? Hackney, isn't it?"
If there's a more depressing, frightening and awful experience than looking for a flat to rent in London, I don't want to know about it. My mate Laurent was trying to find somewhere to live, and had to find somewhere quickly. I volunteered to trail round with him, to translate, negotiate and to act as a sort of guide-cum-nursemaid.
It's been eight or nine years since I had to do it myself, but it still wasn't difficult to remember the utter trauma and misery of finding a flat to rent in London. The idea of his trying to do it on his own, in a foreign language, trying to understand the baffling practices of a foreign property market, raised up a bit of pity in me. And so here we are, somewhere in Hackney, trying to read the A-Z by the orange street lights as they flicker past.
"I can't believe it," he says after a moment. "You know, in Paris, for this sort of money, you would get a huge flat in the Marais. And here you can't get anything at all."
"We'll find something, I'm sure," I say.
"But I don't want to live so far away, at the far end of Hackney. In a flat that looked like... I'd rather go back to France."
"We'll find something, today or tomorrow," I say briskly. I've said it now so many times that I really almost believe it. And, after all, people do, on the whole, find somewhere to live, don't they?
"Hang on. I think it's the next road on the right." He slows right down. There is no road on the right. "Try this one," I say, but it turns out to be a dead end. With a great deal of grinding of gears and teeth, we reverse into the main road again. "I think if we take the next right," I say, but it's all a bit too late. "I don't want to live in this fucking place," Laurent says with an air of great finality, and starts driving back into town.
Next appointment is in Hammersmith. "Hammersmith is nice," I say brightly. "And it's not too far out." From the outside, the house looks OK; a pretty suburban villa. It's only when you get to the door that things start to go wrong. The panel of doorbells is as long as your arm; we are here to see flat number 12, in a house which must once have housed a family of four. Someone has got greedy, here.
Laurent, apparently, has lost the will to live by now. The flat - or, as we say in English, the room - is so small that it would only take 20 seconds for the prospective renter to examine and exhaust its delights. Still, we have driven all the way to Hammersmith, and politeness dictates we show a bit of an interest.
The landlord is a highly talkative German, and the house is fanatically tidy. He runs us through the kitchen appliances, the carpet, the sofa which, look, turns into a bed, the garden, and is starting on the house rules when we both decide that enough is enough. "We'll call tomorrow morning and let you know," I say flatly.
"You'd want to kill him in half an hour," Laurent says, unkindly but accurately, as we head off. "And can you imagine spending Sunday afternoon in that room, if it was raining?"
"How much was it?" I say. "A hundred and fifty pounds a week? That's amazing."
"Where next?" Laurent asks. "Bayswater," I say. "You know, I know this isn't what you want to hear, but have you thought about sharing something for a few months?"
"No," he says. "I'd rather go back to France. It's just not civilised." And he's right. It's not civilised to live like this; to have a perfectly respectable income, and have to contemplate sharing a flat, or live in a studio the size of a cupboard. Something, somewhere, has gone wrong.
Of course, he got lucky, and found a nice flat at a reasonable rent. But I can't help thinking about those other flats we saw; the one in Stockwell with mushrooms growing on the carpet, or the "large studio" in Bayswater too small for three people to sit down in simultaneously, and wonder about the lives of the people who took them. How much misery there is in London's hired spaces; how much helpless greed.
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